Well-known for birthing jazz, funk, gospel, and the brass-band parade tradition called second line in the early 20th century, New Orleans still nurtures a new generation of musicians in their 20s. These up-and-comers blend the city’s heritage sound with newer genres of spoken word and local styles of hip-hop like bounce and trap.
“There’s some people that think of New Orleans as a living museum. They say we’ll go there to see straight jazz, traditional jazz, and second line; we’ll walk through this living museum,” said musician Albert Allenback in an interview with Pasatiempo. “But there is also a huge hip-hop scene here, a huge soul scene. The artists here are not antiquated, not dusty imitations or echoes of the past but people who live day in and day out in a city whose sound is not irrelevant.”
Allenback is a sax and flute player for Tank and the Bangas, a breakout New Orleans five-piece band whose electrifying appearances on NPR and Jimmy Kimmel Live! have introduced them to a national audience. Their groove-filled live sets have won them a committed and eclectic fan base. Playing a mix of funk and soul, rap and spoken word, the band moves with one foot in the 20th century and one foot in our genre-swapping future. The Bangas’ songs swing with a horn-heavy stomp and ooze with strut funk poetics that call to mind their Crescent City forebears The Meters. At the helm of the band is Tarriona “Tank” Ball, who deploys her quicksilver vocals to arrange melodies to her whim. She handily raps over an Atlanta trap beat or smoothly vamps through a neo-soul ballad like a millennial Jill Scott.
More often than not, she pulls off the unlikely feat of tilt-shifting grown-and-sexy R&B arrangements onto a whimsical lyrical palate clearly influenced by anime and Disney movie soundtracks. “Boxes and Squares,” one of the band’s concert staples off their 2013 album Think Tank, uses a grocery list as a wistful relationship metaphor: “Would have been fruit/Would have been vegetables/Would have been soup/I would have been good for you.”
The band plays Meow Wolf on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Santa Feans looking to prep for the show would do well to give the band’s March 2019 release, Green Balloon, a spin. A grab bag of genre-benders that spans jazz, spoken word, Southern hip-hop, and Louisiana funk, the album enlists heavyweight producers including Mark Batson (a Grammy Award-winning producer for Beyoncé and Alicia Keys) and Zaytoven (Nicki Minaj, Gucci Mane, Migos). But it’s no substitute for the real thing — a Tank and the Bangas show that enlists the audience in recreating their songs onstage, improvising on the take.
Tank and the Bangas formed in 2011 over a weekly backyard open mic. But like many bands from the Deep South, the members honed their skills by playing in churches as much as they did clubs, incorporating gospel rhythms into their secular songs.
“Tank’s father is a reverend. [Keyboard player] Merell Burkett’s father is a pastor. We all come from the tradition of having to learn from ear and improvise onstage if the pastor shifts his pitch or starts the song in a different key,” said Allenback, 25. “There’s many times when we play a show on Saturday night and everybody would drive back in the morning to play at a church on Sunday morning.”
Though the band has been in existence for nearly a decade, their national popularity is a recent phenomenon. Albums released in 2013 (Think Tank) and 2014 (The Big Bang Theory: Live at Gasa Gasa) won accolades in the New Orleans press, where the band routinely won “best live act” awards. Their breakthrough moment came in 2017 when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk concert competition, beating out more than 6,000 other bands, to snatch the influential prize. To date, the YouTube video of the performance has been streamed 8.5 million times. Intimately filmed within the confines of the Tiny Desk studio concert space, the video reveals a band that has built their audience through a dedication to stagecraft, live performance, and riffing on each other’s musical quirks. As one commenter on the video posted: “Yo this not just music, this a whole broadway show i’m honestly so amazed. Didn’t know music could be this expressive, whimsical, beautiful, and chill at the same time. I’m in love.”
Allenback is grateful for the new audience the NPR platform gave the band. “It was a beautiful moment in time captured and translated through film,” he said. “Our focus in on making the music live by putting on an unforgettable, communicative live show. That is a reflection of who we really are. We create a really safe space for people to dance and feel it.”
While we live in a pop music age dominated by streaming numbers and social media follows, Tank and the Bangas is in many ways a throwback to the age when bands were not under pressure to crank out albums with high track counts to increase their chances of landing on listeners’ personal playlists. Instead, they have cultivated an audience through the pleasure of their live shows. A typical show features the band, which grows to include up to 10 members, spinning their songs into 10-minute jams, inflected with spoken-word poetry, ad lib commentary, call-and-responses, as well as guided shuffles through soul music line dances.
“Our audiences are always feeling it. People always love to come out and see other humans doing something well,” Allenback said. ◀
▼ Tank and the Bangas with special guest Alfred Banks
▼ Meow Wolf, 1352 Rufina Circle
▼ Wednesday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. (doors 7 p.m.); 21-and-over show
▼ $33 in advance, $38 at the show; 505-395-6369, tickets.holdmyticket.com/tickets/346126